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A Calling to the Class of 2017

Northwest Academy Graduation Address
delivered by Oregon Symphony President
Scott Showalter on June 11, 2017

Scott ShowalterGood evening graduates, families, and friends. Congratulations, Class of 2017. I am honored to speak tonight, proud to serve on your board, and absolutely excited for you.

When I graduated high school, my mother was the same age that I am now. I remember thinking that she was old.

I didn't know then what I would do in life. Go to college, sure. But my interests extended beyond my own piano performance to German, Engineering, and Math. I studied these subjects and more, defaulted to a degree in Economics, and had no idea where I'd end up. Certainly not running an orchestra, since I'd never thought about arts management, and certainly not in Portland, where I'd never been.

In the years following college, I made a series of moves that were not pre-planned and did not lead directly to where I am today. The common denominator was only a vague sense that I wanted work to matter.

But looking back, nearly three decades after high school, I believe that I had a greater calling. I just didn't know it at your age. I'm going to share it with you – not to explain my own story, but as a challenge. Perhaps my calling will become your own. I hope that it does.

If you accept it, our world will be a better place.

And it's within your grasp – because of who you are intrinsically, and your excellent and balanced education at Northwest Academy. Better than most, you appreciate the true value of the arts. How music can entertain, dance can provoke, and film can engage. How drawing and photography can alter perspective, and theater can make you think again.

Yet you also know that the arts aren't everything. Through your senior theses, you've analyzed topics from the rights of the disabled and the roots of economic disparity, to the future of hospital technologies and the problems in our justice system. You've clearly benefited from rigorous academics and discourse, the kind of knowledge and critical thinking that our society so desperately needs. More than ever, we face seemingly impossible challenges, which you might make your life's work. How to sustain the environment, eradicate disease, feed the poor, ensure international peace and security. Solving such problems saves lives.

And the arts make life worth living.

Given the erratic politics and economic pressures of our time, increasing numbers of people predict the death of live performance and the demise of the arts. Let me assure you that they are not going away. Civilizations for millennia have been defined by their artistic perspective and innovation. Through modern advances in technology, artists today are developing new and important ways to communicate, for the arts provide a voice to express what words cannot. At the same time, technological progress is also isolating many people, and so the role of arts in fostering community has never been more crucial.

The arts are unmatched for their contributions to society and the feelings that they evoke. And so they have incredible power to UNITE, INSPIRE, EDUCATE, and HEAL.

I ask you to indulge me for a moment please, and close your eyes...

Imagine that you are at a concert. Doesn't matter what kind of music – it might be a rock band or, say, the Oregon Symphony. It's the favorite concert of your life. The music flows, and at the end the audience leaps to its feet in thunderous applause.

Now keeping your eyes closed, imagine that concert again. The music still flows, but you are the *only one* in the hall.

Okay, open your eyes. I bet I know which scenario you prefer. Most of us aren't aware that when we buy that concert ticket, we are actively seeking community. The arts UNITE us.

And they INSPIRE us. The Oregon Symphony performs more than 100 concerts per year, and I attend nearly all of them. Although it's my job, I find it a privilege every time to turn off my cell phone and be overcome by the sheer beauty of music. Yet my favorite part is after the concert is over, and I've turned my back to the stage. It's the greatest professional rush to see masses of people leap to their feet, smiles on their faces, similarly overcome by music. The arts INSPIRE us.

The arts EDUCATE us. My niece just turned two years old. She doesn't know much about the world and can't speak much, yet she already sings, dances, and draws. The arts are her gateway to understanding herself, other people, and her environment. Singing teaches her the alphabet, film teaches her French, and finger-painting teaches her how to create. The arts EDUCATE us.

And the arts HEAL us. My mother, the one I remember being old when I was your age, is young today. Far too young for the advanced dementia she suffers. She no longer knows about the world and can't speak much, although her spirits lift with any music that she hears – church hymns, holiday tunes, children's songs. In her dark days, music is a bright moment that brings a smile. The arts HEAL us.

To UNITE, INSPIRE, EDUCATE, and HEAL… the arts have incredible power.

And because you play, sing, dance, paint, sculpt, draw, photograph, and make film, you too have this power. You may not pursue a career in the arts, but you will forever have it. And so, I offer, you have a responsibility.

Fortunately, it's an enjoyable one. And that responsibility is the same as the calling that I wished I'd known when I was your age.

I'm going to tell it to you now. You needn't take notes, it's only two words. Simple to understand, though at times hard to achieve. Here it is...  


Bring joy to all that you do. However your life unfolds, whatever career you choose, whoever your loved ones are. The arts make life worth living. With their power, and your knowledge, you can bring joy to this world. So do it.

Unite people in art, inspire people with dance, educate people through theater, heal people in song. Do it professionally or in your personal hours, contribute your money or your time. It doesn't matter so much how you do it.

Whatever you seek to do in life – perform on Broadway, act in Hollywood, make money on Wall Street, be a parent on Main Street – do that. Just do it in a way that brings joy.

All major milestones in your life – birthdays, graduations, weddings, funerals – will involve one or more forms of art. We play, sing, dance, paint, sculpt, draw, photograph, and make film to celebrate life, mourn loss, and make sense of the world around us.

On one's death bed, none ever said that she wished she'd sent more email and created more spreadsheets. Make time for art – now and in the future – and bring joy.

You graduates, who have studied the arts among many subjects, have something to say and the power to make a difference. You have the power to create beauty and bring joy. Having worked hard at this superb school, you have earned a rare gift: the ability to analyze subjects from various perspectives, and to appreciate and excel in a life enriched by art.

It's what you do with this gift that will define you. How will you give back? What will be your mark?

You needn't answer these questions soon. Perhaps, like me, you won't know the answers for some decades.

But along your path there, I challenge you to consider how you bring joy to your community. Create it in your own life, and go further. Create a world in which others might find joy.

Never before have we needed the arts and all that you can do as much as today. Use your education and talents as a force for good. Debate, entertain, engage, care, give.

Bring. Joy.

Congratulations again, Class of 2017. Here is to your – and our – joyous future to come!

– Scott Showalter